Thursday, April 18, 2013
"I took notice, and done better."
When I was teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there was a moment when I always stopped and asked a question. Here's the moment ...
He's feeling pretty good about things--"only Jim said I didn't walk like a girl, and he said I must quit pulling up my gown to get at my britches pocket. I took notice, and done better."
I took notice, and done better.
At that moment, I would always stop and sort of stare at the students. (That always made them uncomfortable!) Then I would ask what was so significant about that moment. And soon--sometimes very soon--someone would say: Huck just took advice from a black man.
That's right. Huck Finn--a poorly schooled little boy in ante-Bellum America, a white boy brought up in a most racist world, a boy who at the moment (and throughout the book really) wields enormous power over the life of Jim--listens to a runaway slave.
This is a key moment in Huck's moral growth, his dawning realization that Jim is a person. Huck's moral progress is not steadily upward. Like the rest of us, he stumbles, slides backwards, screws up. But he makes progress. By the end of the book he is no saint--not by any definition. But he is a better person, principally because he takes notice, and does better--in so many ways.
We can learn a lot from Huckleberry Finn (and from Huckleberry Finn). The boy has a most capacious heart--not just for those who are dear to him but even for people who don't really "deserve" his compassion. He even feels sorry for those miserable reprobates, the King and the Duke, who have betrayed him and Jim in most egregious fashion. Remember when he sees them, tarred and feathered? At the end of Chapter 33?
Well, it made me most sick to see it; and I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals, it seemed like I couldn't ever feel any hardness against them any more in the world. It was a dreadful thing to see. [And then, the famous line.] Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.
It's a hard thing, changing your mind--then changing your behavior. Maybe the hardest task we face as human beings. In these polarized days, changing your mind is perceived as weakness, as "waffling." Or--appeasement. Or craven. Or worse. Think of the awful price that politicians pay when they change their positions. Sometimes, sure, it's just convenience and cowardice that prompt those changes. But if we condemn and punish and label those who change, aren't we just making certain that change will be even more rare than it now is?
I try to avoid political talk-TV and talk-radio because I know what people are going to say before they say it. No one listens. No one budges a micron from his or her original position. No one says to a question of the day, You know, that's a complicated issue we can examine from several points of view. No, there is only one view--the party line--and anyone who argues the other side is just, well, you know, stupid and evil!
As has been evident in Congress in recent years (and days), no progress on anything is possible when both sides hew their positions out of adamant and refuse to alter a single molecule of their self-serving sculpture.
It's hard, too, to open our hearts to those we think don't really deserve our empathy and compassion. It's hard to imagine ourselves in the positions of others. But we have to try. Otherwise, we become a culture of predators and prey.
So I say: Huck for President! Jim for Senate! They would listen to each other. They would take notice--and do better. And wouldn't that be refreshing?